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Posts Tagged ‘buddhism’

In light of yesterday’s post, I’d like to dive a little deeper into this idea of living a life of intention. First, what exactly is the difference between an intentional life and an unintentional one? In Buddhist lingo, an unintentional existence can be considered living karmically. This means that you are subject to your habits, your past conditioning, the circumstances in which you exist. There may be a vague sense of seeking happiness or pleasure, but you’ve not deeply examined this ‘sense’. 

Intentional living can take on various meanings too. There can be an intention to become as rich and powerful as possible, or there can be an intention to free all beings from suffering (the heart of the Bodhisattva Vows introduced yesterday). Each direction can be add clarity to one’s life, yet I’ll argue that deeply questioning or witnessing one’s experience in this world makes it very difficult to pursue the former.

Buddhism has taken many forms throughout history – today its often considered a philosophy, a religion, a soteriological method, or even a trendy fashion. Some consider it all or none of these. The precepts referred to yesterday stem from a long tradition of providing a framework of living intentionally. For many of us accustomed to the “Ten commandments” from our upbringing, the Buddhist precepts can feel like a list of Do’s and Don’ts. This is not really their intention, instead they are supposed to shed light on our actions. What is the state of mind that exists when a precept is broken?

A Buddhist does not ask what is right or wrong, but "What am I to do at this moment?" Therefore, even killing cannot be considered right or wrong, removed from the context of the moment. There is a legend of the Buddha in a previous lifetime killing someone who was about to commit a mass-murder. If he was stuck in the idea of “Thou shalt not kill”, or any other idea, he is not free to act appropriately in a given situation. The precepts are more a guideline for figuring out how to live, rather than telling us exactly how to live.

Personally, I decided that before I would consider receiving the precepts formally with my teacher, I would hold them in my daily life, to see how they resonated with and for me. Over time, while I found the list and framework helpful, they still felt rather removed from me and abstract. After several conversations with my teachers, and continued examination of my own practice, what I found most effective in living an intentional life was through developing my own vows in the context of the greater Bodhisattva vows. These vows, which I recite daily, are constantly evolving: sometimes I add a new one or remove one, sometimes I change the wording to evoke a stronger resonance within my day. When living at the monastery I would silently recite these vows during our morning prostrations, which seemed to have the effect of shifting these vows from abstract ideas to an embodiment that I could carry with me in my day. This will continue to be a dynamic process as my life evolves and my practice deepens.

I’d like to take a step back – I again went down the Buddhist path, yet I really want to focus more generally on intentional living, no matter what your faith or background is.  There is a thin line between intentional living and controlled living. I feel that a controlled life falls more in line with the example I previously gave, that of seeking power and money. Any idea of control is always perceived control, because the world is wholly unpredictable and constantly changing. We know this, yet we continue to seek controls – over our emotions, our bodies, our relationships, our financial situation, etc., etc. Yet this is also one of our greatest sources of misery – when our perfectly laid plans don’t work out, when we are surprised by our partner leaving us or losing our job.

An intentional life doesn’t hold onto ideas like “ I need to be a millionaire” or “I need to look a certain way” or “I will own a big house and have 3 kids with my beautiful partner”.  It is much more fundamental: vowing to live compassionately, to live connected with all other beings, to keep your attention in your breath, body and phenomena. Intentionality can infuse all of our actions, it can allow us to remain centered and directed despite the ever changing circumstances. Or more elegantly stated:

The light of intention always shines through the weeds of karma

Do you live an intentional life? What are your intentions? Can you articulate them and share them with others? Do you have hidden intentions that may not actually benefit yourself and others?  Ask yourself these things.

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Two years ago I built this website for the purpose of documenting my travels abroad and here I am again, on the cusp of leaving home and seeking something unknown abroad. In one week, I depart for Koh Phangan, Thailand, where Agama Yoga awaits.

My initial pilgrimage sought to explore the world, to uncover hidden corners of the planet, to create new experiences and memories.  My trip in 2009 allowed me to exhaust a long-held myth I had about discovering some form of realization through the accumulation of experience.

Today I have a much different aspiration: Unwinding all of this experience, the false identification of self and my delusion about the actual nature of reality. I realized over time that my journey was much more an inward one than anything external or material. My search has narrowed significantly from the entire world, to the spiritual practices of Zen Buddhism, Tantra and Vajrayana. I’ve discovered that this unwinding process is best accomplished through a life not filled with experience, activities and commitments, rather through self-enquiry and meditation. As Yuan Wu so eloquently stated in my last post:

Sit upright and investigate reality. Within an independent awareness, you must constantly step back from conventions and perceptions and worldly entanglements. Look to the void and trace its outline. Take your head out of a bowl of glue!

If all one needs to do is sit upright and investigate reality, why am I traveling half-way around the globe?  Fair question that I will attempt to answer. Let me back up a bit. 

Almost one year ago, on May 16th 2010, I returned home from India, completing a year (mostly) abroad. The journey brought me back to the same place I began, yet things had shifted significantly within me. I vigorously began practicing Zen, both at a monastery in Crestone and at the Boulder Zen Center, developing strong relationships with the Sangha (group of practitioners), and the teachers. After spending a month in a rigorous monastic setting in the fall, I considered a longer-term stay, considered joining the annual 90-day practice period in the winter. Yet, worldly entanglements and my own fear of such a practice prevented me from moving forward. I was involved in a romantic relationship that has since dissolved, a relationship that I believe represented many of the aspects of worldliness that I refused to let go of.  Once again ignoring intuition, I was drawn towards societal ideas of what it means to live in this world, to relate to another person and basically all of the shoulds that are based on nothing but one’s own projections of society and ego.

Part of me wants to say that I’ve been idling the past 3 or 4 months, drifting in this sort of purposeless manner. This is true when examined from the lens of normal that society and we produce for ourselves. I have to step back and remind myself that this is all part of a greater process of renunciation for me, detaching from ideas of self and the world that do not benefit anyone, that only seek to perpetuate a process and mode of existence that perpetuates a world of suffering and discontent.  I meditate a lot, I sit upright and examine my experience. I am constantly trying to step back from worldly entanglements and perceptions.  I examine all the presumptions and ideas of how the world works, what is reality and why I am here.  I attempt to infuse intentions of compassion and wisdom into my body, speech and mind.  Despite on paper being a 31 year old unemployed guy from Boulder with nothing going for him, I feel this tremendous sense of change within, of a new world unfolding before me, filled with Possibility, Beauty and Love.

This still has nothing to do with answering my initial question of why go anywhere? My teacher has told me that practicing in a single stream provides the best results- why swim in another? My answer to this is that my exploration of Agama is, while primarily spiritual in nature, also an opportunity for me to pursue a vocation in the world that has meaning for me. I am considering a meditation teachers training in 2012.  My idea involves bringing meditation and self-enquiry to more people, via any channel possible: Yoga, Corporate Training, workshops, seminars, private consulting, blogging, etc.  It is very loose and evolving at this point, but there is a sense of momentum and purpose for me right now. My intention this summer is to explore the school, evaluate the teachers and the programs, to ensure this is the type of commitment I want to make in early 2012.  This summer I plan to take a number of courses, including Vira Training, Hridaya Meditation Retreat, Kashmiri Shaivism and Naturopathic and Yogic Healing, in addition to continuing my second and third month of studies in the Agama curriculum.

There you have it.  I have a one-way ticket to Thailand, a new Yoga mat and a big heart.

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This has been my mantra as of late. Of course there are many things to do and places to go, but what I’m after is the state of mind that accompanies such a phrase. If you examine your thoughts, you’ll find that your mind generally is wanting to do something (eat, sleep, talk, etc.) or go some place.  When you are unemployed and wondering where your life is headed, this tends to happen even more.

Where have I been and what have I been doing?

First, the usual apology – why haven’t I been writing? Some of you know I spent six weeks this fall at the monastery, undergoing a rigorous spiritual practice. Wasn’t this full of juicy, bloggable insight?? Well yes, and no. A feeling has developed for me around sharing my spiritual progress (Is there such a thing?) that feels somewhat counterintuitive.  Zen is often described as a practice of meeting and speaking, and I have found outlets here at home that I never had while traveling – my sangha, my teachers, and my very close relationships. Its through these relationships, these meeting and speaking’s that I can explore the teachings, practice the radial views that the Buddha provided as a hypothesis to meet the world and free oneself from discontent.  I however still feel a strong need to express myself creatively, specifically through writing. I’ve gone through a goal-setting process for 2011 and have selected writer as one of my major focuses. I’m enrolled in a couple of writing classes and seminars this winter and I hope to become much more regular on the blog scene. I’m aware that all blog posts do not have to be deeply personal and profoundly insightful, but rather interesting and contain something that appeals to people. Longer-term, I am hoping to expand into a wider field of writing that includes yoga, wellness, meditation, simple living,  stress reduction, responsible investing, etc. As I re-read the above excuse about why I haven’t been writing, I find myself feeling this is not completely true, that there is another element at play beyond just being usurped by a community. There is also the shear fact that my life in America, in Colorado, is filled with baggage (good and bad), that seems to fill my day. Or more clearly, misdirects my energy from a place where I can get quiet enough to write. An example of this is my addiction to technology which will require a future blog post to decipher… Yes its clear that the world here runs on a much different wave-length than the holy cities of India or the mountain villages of Laos, but what is still needed, and this is something I’ve spoken of in the past, is the development of my own posture to maintain my own wavelength despite external circumstances. Its not as though I don’t have idle time – I have loads of it! Its more the undercurrent of motion or pressure that persists in my environment, as if it has some form of life or energetic pull of its own. I’ve discovered this is especially true of material objects( I will address these thoughts later on my technology addiction…). These energetic pulls do not allow for as much pure space with ones Self.  I am fully aware that this is my own minds perception of the circumstances, not an actual fact, yet I must slowly work on these habits, impulses and perceptions to be free of them.

What exactly has an unemployed vagabond been doing the past half a year? Often I wonder this myself, wavering between feeling that I’ve done nothing at all and a feeling of having done quite a lot.  First, the big changes. No, not a job! Since I’ve last written, the ever-amazing and beautiful Autumn, has reentered my life in a major way, as we’ve deepened a partnership begun two years ago, this time under new light and circumstances.  Last weekend we moved into a house (its yellow!) together in Denver, providing a significant shift for me (and us). First, leaving the town where I spent the last 8 years (and most of my adult life), and second, living with a woman. “Taking the plunge” as several people have called it recently. 🙂 We’ve moved into a neighborhood called Berkeley, an up and coming (aren’t they all?), neighborhood in NW Denver that is only a 25 minute drive from Boulder: at least at 5 in the morning when I’m often making it (more on this later).  The decision to move to Denver was not a light one. Upon examination of my priorities and values, which include spending more time with Autumn, having a comfortable, affordable space, and simply being open to the current circumstances in life, such as being unemployed and with a partner with a full-time job in Denver, the timing felt right. My heart is still in that yuppie mountain town and if we can ever figure out how to earn enough money to live there comfortably, we will definitely consider it.

And how does one afford living anywhere when they’ve been approaching two full years of unemployment? I am very grateful for the fortune and generosity the world has provided me.  I’ve been funding my mini-retirement or consciousness sabbatical through a generous severance from IBM, unemployment insurance, intelligent investing and a simplistic lifestyle. Due to the market improvements since early 2009, I actually have more net worth than I did the moment I was laid off. While this has been providing me a nice level of security, it has done little for stoking the fire under my ass to get me back into a career. I find myself seeking more engagement with my world, yet still balancing this with the fact that I don’t want a simple exchange of money for my time, which is the traditional method of working. One major step I’ve taken recently towards this end is to create a set of goals.  Based on a book recommendation called My Best Year Yet, originally published in 1994, I worked through a set of worksheets to cross-reference the roles, values, and priorities in my life to create a summary sheet of goals for the year. I highly recommend this book – ultimately it is 5 to 10 hours of work which will provide you clear and simple way to prioritize your year into a one sheet summary. I’m debating sharing my summary as a way to remain accountable, but for now it’s a little too personal. One of the main purposes of the exercise is to really examine which aspects of spending your time actually move you forward towards your goals. Its sort of like a quick gut-check for your day… (Does this activity move me towards or away from what I’ve set out to do in 2011?) that has been useful (albeit frustrating at times) in keeping me on task.

One of my focuses this year is on Zen practice. As many of you know I spent the greater part of October and much of November on retreat in Crestone for something called the study month. This was a powerful time for me to deepen my meditation practice, re-center, and forge a deep connection with the practice and our lineage (the focus of our month). There is a lot to say about this month that I may return to, but the point today is that when I finished and returned to Boulder, there was absolutely no question that this practice, this way of life is paramount to everything else I do. I began sitting 3-4 mornings a week, spending more and more time at the Boulder Zen Center (which operates the Briar Rose B&B – a fabulous place to stay or just stop by for tea next time you’re in Boulder). Someone found out I had an MBA and was good with math and next thing I knew I was elected to the board as treasurer. I often call my mornings at the Zen Center my “old man retired time”.  After meditation and service, those of us that can, usually stick around for tea, shooting the dharma or just catching up on life.  Despite the fact that we aren’t all old, retired or men, I see what the lives of old retired men are all about. I love it!

January came around and two of our pillars at the Zen Center headed to Crestone for Practice Period (90 day intensive practice) and suddenly several mediation periods needed a Doan (person who holds the space, rings the bells and runs service). Despite the upcoming move to Denver, I decided to formally commit to being here on Thursday mornings, Thursday evenings and Friday mornings.  Its sort of like having a mini-retreat every week. As I type this I’m sitting in the Briar Rose living room after tea, enjoying my weekly vagabond day in Boulder.  It has also been a nice way to ‘break-up’ with Boulder, still getting to the gym, my favorite coffee shops and spending time with my friends.

In addition to Zen, there is skiing, working out, reading, and a growing commitment to writing. I’m taking a series of writing courses this winter to get me kick-started on writing more effectively, hopefully at some point this year creating a new blog and website directed towards future income. One of my goals this year is two blog entries a week so watch out!

I hope everyone is off to a great 2011, and I look forward to being much more communicative this year!

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Fall is in the air, as is the energy of getting back to school and work. Yet I still linger in this space of uncertainty, waiting, waiting for my call to work or school or otherwise.

What are my circumstances asking me to do?

Is the phrase I mentioned in my previous post that is often asked by those pursuing a Summoned Life.  Yet what if those circumstances aren’t asking me anything? Maybe I’m not listening well enough?  I find myself struggling on days like this – a Monday morning with a blank week ahead. Yes a few coffees and hikes with friends, but outside of this and my morning meditation practice I have very little structure. Even when one has a job they don’t like, the job still fills the role of providing the individual purpose and a frame to work in. But what if ones work is self-discovery? Why can’t self-discovery be the framework that one’s day evolves from? This is a constant area of wonder for me – of how a sometimes meaningless (depending on your line of work – of course this isn’t true for everyone!), time consuming activity used to extract money from society can be such a form of stability, while a spiritual process is often not?  I guess answering to a time-clock is easier than answering to yourself. I wonder if this is why Buddhism has been so fulfilling for me as of late – it provides a rational process and tools for spiritual development and my soteriological process. A quote from the aforementioned article:

Business is about making choices that maximize utility. But the most important features of the human landscape are commitments that precede choice — commitments to family, nation, faith or some cause. These commitments defy the logic of cost and benefit, investment and return.

Defying the logic of cost and benefit, investment and return…. why would you proceed to do anything in this manner? Only after you have discovered through contemplation that rational thought, deductive reasoning and the scientific method are all limited in their soteriological qualities. I find it interesting today that many people consider themselves atheists or agnostics and yet fully accept the reductionist/scientific view of life as a doctrine. Many people in modern society use science AS something to explain the world without self-examination. This is the definition of belief and at a fundamental level is not any different than a belief in God, Allah, or Jesus. Its just called Science, not Religion. But I digress.

If I am to committed to relinquishing a modern, materialistic and reductionist worldview, rather choosing to approach a life of contemplation and seeking (aka the examined life), should I feel guilty when I crack a beer and watch a couple episodes of The Daily Show?  How do we reconcile the differences between enjoyment and recreation and attachment? There are no concrete answers as there are no absolute rights and wrongs. For one person a chocolate bar may open the door to all manners of craving, attachment and delusion where for another it may be the catalyst to liberation. Following this logic, each person needs to carefully examine the subtle workings of their consciousness. Many call this the subconscious, but in yogic teachings the subconscious is never seen as something different than consciousness, it is just an area of your consciousness that you do not currently have the ability to be directly aware of (dreaming mind). Powerful Yogis and practitioners have transcended this and have the ability to remain aware in their dreams and even deep sleep.

So what exactly does an examined life in modern society look like? If one is not careful, he will be perceived as selfish, overly-holy and egotistical. Yet such is the risk of such an existence. We can never truly judge someone else’s position with 100% accuracy. Recently I had someone close to me attempt define me in this way – I was told that my pursuit of Buddhism was an academic one, preventing me from maturing as an individual and allowing me not to commit (citing Buddhist non-attachment) to anyone or anything in my life. This really bothered me, because it is true that while I am not diving 100% into any activity, I feel so much more fulfilled by all activities. And everything even means the traditionally burdensome ones. I will continue to wrestle with my perception in the world…. understanding there will always be at least 3 viewpoints (my perception of my self, others perceptions of me (many multiples of these!), and of course just Self).

Often I feel a sense of guilt around my lifestyle – and am not always comfortable admitting that I am no longer a good capitalist, my future no longer indebted to my past and not filling any clearly defined role.  In cultures like India a Summoned Life  is acceptable and even expected from at least one member of the family whereas in the West, the Summoned Life is often viewed as mysterious as it does not follow the framework of business plan life and remains oddly on the sideline for others to point at as different.

I am incredibly fortunate at this point in my life. To have gotten out of the cycle of working and debt and to have this opportunity to remain comfortably unemployed. However now we arrive at the Crux of the Summoned life – getting over the ego’s need to prove that you are DOING something with this alternate approach, the pressure to SHOW something from it.  That’s all I have for today… Off I go…

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Is what I have been doing for the past couple of months. This is a Buddhist term for balancing our everyday world with the non-dual nature of the universe. Sounds deep but its really what we are doing in every moment. The difficulty comes in remaining aware of this continual negotiation. Negotiating the Way is often described as striking balance between the two truths – ultimate reality and worldly or relative reality. They are not different, not the same, inseparable yet distinct.

medium_diverging_pathsI’ve been home for a little over two months, finding myself swirling around in a state very unlike those of my past. While I was traveling in India I had many ideas and images of what life would ‘be’ and ‘look like’ when I came home. As life tends to do, it destroyed my expectations, wishes and ideas and completely threw everything up in the air when I first arrived home. Its things like this that place one right back to the present reality of this moment. Clichéd, but true. People left my life, others entered, many changed, but one thing was for certain, is that despite the many changes of scenery, the pulse of life is always calling one home.

Despite an urge to remain off the grid, I’ve slowly made some moves to reintegrate into society; I recently paid my first rent check in over 12 months, bought a car and a laptop. There are simple realities of living in America that I’ve discovered are easier to adopt rather than go against the grain.

I started this entry during the middle of my last 10 day visit to my Zen Center in Crestone, Colorado. Today I’m a few days away from returning for my forth week this summer. In retrospect, I would have preferred to spend a single, longer period of time there, instead of multiple experiences of back and forth between a very disciplined life and the one of complete non-discipline, but what this back and forth has provided is very clear insight into certain patterns in my life that are not conducive to awakening.

When I talk about Zen practice I mean much more than just sitting meditation (zazen) or chanting and bowing – ultimately I’ve come to learn that is the easy piece.  The harder piece is practicing compassion with fellow residents when you are exhausted and upset, dropping petty desires and attachments; Addressing subtle shifts in consciousness before they disappear behind attachment or aversion or ignorance; Practicing compassion and patience inwardly, not judging oneself for absolutely detesting the 4:30 wake-up call or 3 hours of work in the hot sun followed by cleaning toilets. A strange phenomenon occurs for me in my drifting in and out of the monastery: despite the absolutely rigorous schedule, lack of sleep and fantasies about how much freedom I will have when leaving and returning home, as soon as I do return home there is a slight sense of deflation, of the volume being turned down on life despite the overwhelming amount of stimulus and choice(“Free Will” available. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it completely, but its as if our world of physical freedoms and choices masks our ability to see our Self or true nature. In a place where you are denied these freedoms, even to the level of your own time and sleep, transformation can take place.

Zen practice provides a framework, not a dogma that so many religious institutions are so quick to provide. A quote from that as I recently read so brilliantly in Hee-Jin Kim’s Dogen on Meditation and Thinking:  “[Dogen] challenged and urged practitioners to critically reflect on how to practice their own religion for the sake of alleviating suffering for all sentient beings in the world.” Zen is notorious for not allowing practitioners to grasp onto teachers, teachings, holy objects or otherwise. It is designed to return you to yourself, to force you back to developing your own religion(or of you don’t like that word – try your own path, process or world view).  Throughout the summer and my weeks at the Zen Center, outside of an occasional discussion group, there is no formal training, but subtly there is a lot going on. Rituals are designed to bring you back to yourself – 3 hours of meditation a day, sutra service, silent breakfast ritual (Oryoki) and probably most important, the support of the resident sangha for your practice. The teaching can be in the form of words, but more often it is by example – watching senior sangha members do dishes, prepare food, work on the property or simply communicate with each other. Speaking from first hand experience in India (and also some observations from home), it is easy to see how one can become too holy (focused on the ultimate reality), neglecting the world, this body, attaching to those things that are unspeakable and supreme. BUT, as the two truths doctrine states, there is a middle way, a delicate balance between these two aspects of our Self.

On a more practical side, I’m now officially considered one of those long-term unemployed you hear about on the news, surviving on a couple hundred dollars a week. I’ve been trying to stay within my means and enjoy the gift of not having to work to put food on the table. Today I’m spending time with my favorite baby Eva, working really hard to count 5 and repeating various animal sounds. Woof Woof!

One would assume with all of this additional time that I’m getting out to climb, doing all of those things that I was unable to while slaving away to Corporate 50 weeks a year for the past 8 years. But I’m not. I’ve dabbled in climbing, Yoga, backpacking. I’ve been very careful about not jumping into any single activity – moving slowly, slowly. I’ve yet to get a gym membership and have not spent much time in the going out scene. While I still love doing these things, several as a wonderful expression of myself, I find that I am dis-identifying with them.  Some my take this as a disheartening approach to life, but I’m taking more of the  “Nothing Special” approach: while certain activities no longer completely consume me, I’m finding that in general all of my daily activities are heightened with more interest: simple time with friends, extra time in the car because I forgot my keys and had to turn around, doing dishes or simply sitting quietly and watching the world go by. Which will lead me to my next blog post – this strange sense of standing still while everything else around me is moving…  But for tonight I leave you with a heady quote from Eihei Dogen (The Great Zen Master from the 13th century):

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In the Shobogenzo, “Bendowa” (1231), Dogen succinctly enunciates his Zen: “The endeavor to negotiate the Way (bendo), as I teach  now, consists in discerning all things in view of enlightenment, and putting such a unitive awareness (ichinyo) into practice in the midst of the revaluated world (shutsuro).” This statement clearly sets forth practitioners’ soteriological project as negotiating the Way in terms of (1) discerning the nondual unity of all things that are envisioned from the perspective of enlightenment and (2) enacting that unitive vision amid the everyday world of duality now revalorized by enlightenment. Needless to say, these two aspects refer to practice and enlightenment that are nondually one (shusho itto; shusho ichinyo). ~Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen On Meditation and Thinking

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As a sit comfortably in my friend’s home in Boulder, it sometimes seems hard to believe that two weeks ago I was in the middle of an intense, silent, 10 day Tibetan Buddhist meditation retreat high in the hills of India. Despite leaving the country and now being thousands of miles away, many of the powerful lessons of the week continue to walk alongside me.

I learned of Tushita from another traveler while in Rishikesh – originally my plan was to do a 10-day Vipassana retreat (right next door to Tushita), but given my interest and practice in Buddhism, Tushita seemed like a better fit. On the Vipassana course you can expect to learn a meditation technique and have the opportunity to practice it over 10 days of strict silence. Apart from a 90 minute video each evening, there is almost no teaching of the philosophy involved, while the emphasis of Tushita’s Introduction to Buddhism course is on explaining Buddhist philosophy, using a few different meditation techniques to help you to absorb and apply this knowledge to your own experiences. Sold!

The course preceded my flight home to America by just a few days, and it met all expectations of being a fantastic way to center, prepare for returning home and of providing an opportunity to evaluate many aspects of my mind.

The initial afternoon provided a chance to briefly get settled in, chat with other people before the silence began, get my Karma Yoga job for the week (scrubbing toilets!) and explore the meditation center. I was immediately signimpressed by the facilities, specifically the main Gompa (meditation hall). The meditation cushions were very new, the building itself was beautifully designed in Tibetan fashion with Buddha statues, Thangkha paintings and was adorned with photographs of the Dalai Lama and other teachers in the lineage.  The meditation center itself was high on a hill above McLeod Ganj and was very near to where the Dalai lama lived for many years when he first fled Tibet into exile in 1959. The area was deeply forested and in habited by a large family of monkeys who provided endless entertainment in the wake of no television, iPods or other forms of modern distraction!

Our teacher, Venerable Robina Courtin, introduced herself to us on the first evening and with very little time to waste, dove right into the teachings. Robina, her teachers, Tushita, and the greater Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition(FPMT) all hail from one of the 4 major branches of Tibetan Buddhism, Gelug, under spiritual direction of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This school was started by Lama Tsongkhapa around the year 1400, and follows a treatise called Lam-Rim, often translated as The Great Treatise On The Stages Of The Path To Enlightenment.  At first I felt a little turned-off by what felt like cookie cutter Buddhism, but soon realized the beautiful simplicity of these teachings that struck at the core of Buddha’s message.

The teachings were presented as two wings of a bird: Wisdom and Compassion. On the Wisdom path we discussed things such as impermanence and death, karma and the law of cause and effect, Buddha’s four noble truths, dependent arising and emptiness. These teachings are core to any branch of Buddhism – whether Zen, Hinayana, or Tibetan.IMG_4693 I’ve read countless books intellectually explaining the meaning of each of these teachings, but until I’ve have a teacher skillfully deliver these teachings in the midst of a place where you can meditate and practice upon them, they haven’t resonated within my being. This has also been my experience in Zen practice. Robina, following the Lam-Rim method and her own teaching style and experience (living  Dharma – each teacher creates their own Buddhism built on a mixture of their teacher’s teachings and their own human experience), skillfully walked through the Buddha’s teachings in one of the most simplistic and logical manners I have experienced. The Gelug tradition is famous for its use of spirited debate amongst its practitioners and Robina used this method consistently with us as we asked her questions, really challenging individuals assumptions and worldviews. On the second day I noticed that the evening meditation sessions were replaced by teaching sessions and simply asked her why ( I was concerned that a Buddhist meditation retreat would only have a couple hours of meditation in the morning). Before I knew it I was in a challenging debate about the meaning of meditation, my attachment to a specific version of meditation and overall being constructively told to not question my teachers methods!  I really had to check my ego at the door during the debate because I clearly watched as my emotions around self-protection (being put on the spot in front of 50 people) were deluding my ability to have a clear conversation where I learned something from a teacher…

The other aspect of the teaching is the Compassion wing or path of the Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is the wish to attain complete enlightenment (that is, Buddhahood) in order to be of benefit to all sentient beings trapped in cyclic existence (samsāra) who have not yet reached Buddhahood. One who has bodhicitta as the primary motivation for all of his or her activities is called a bodhisattva. The teachings followed methods such as cultivating equanimity, recognizing all sentient beings as One’s Mother (at one point in a past life throughout eons of time), contemplating the kindness of all beings, recognizing the short-comings of cherishing the self and the benefits of cherishing others and generosity. For me these teachings were extremely powerful and touching. One can follow a logical framework that clearly shows that we will not find happiness through ourselves. The path is through others. We know this at a heart level yet we live our lives so completely in conflict with this. I’m nowhere near living bodhicitta, but I’m looking to plant small seeds where I can, to start turning the ship around in an effort to sail this path.

Alongside the teachings we would do guided meditations, and in the evenings something called a vajrasattva purification practice, a visualization practice which is sort of like a confession for Buddhists, but purely within ones own mind you are purifying seeds of negative karma. I’m not even going to try to explain it here – as I was very skeptical myself at first but the results were incredible for me. I had a ton of purification happen during the week, a lot of release around old regrets and misdeeds, things that haven’t even been in my conscious memory in a long time.

The ten days went by much too quickly. The schedule wasn’t too rigorous and I found time to read, continue my Yoga practice and reflect quietly with a cup of chai as I watched the monkeys play. I found myself very in tune with the environment, spending little time thinking of home despite its nearness. I connected deeply with several people despite the silence and imagine we’ll remain connected for a long time. Karma ripening, Robina would say.  Its incredible how few words you actually need when people are living the dharma together, walking alongside each other in this beautiful journey of existence.

Ultimately my Tushita experience was an incredible opportunity to remain connected to my own mind, to watch habitual delusional and attachment thinking, to work on cultivating compassion and living a life more attune with wisdom, calm-abiding and love.

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This year I decided to do something a little different on New Year’s eve. I sat on my cushion. Literally.

IMG_0802I actually spent much of my week on my cushion. On Monday I traveled to the Zen Monastery in Crestone Colorado to participate in a 3-day New Year’s seminar where Abbot Roshi-Baker led a seminar on the teachings of Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki Roshi was Roshi-Baker’s teacher and the first teacher of Soto Zen Buddhism in the West.

Generally, most Buddhists are well asleep by midnight, but the 31’st was special – not only was it the final day of the decade, there was also a full moon. I participated in an ancient Buddhist ceremony which consisted of ringing the densho bell 108 times leading up to midnight, as the sangha members practiced zazen (sitting meditation) intermixed with chanting and bowing. We finished with a toast of sake in the kitchen (yes Buddhists can drink!) and as I slowly walked to my room the bright full moon overhead gave me a few minutes to reflect on the transformative days I just experienced.

As many of you know, I spent a week at the Zen Monastery in April prior to leaving for Asia. That week I undertook my first intensive meditation retreat and was introduced to the formal practices of Zen Buddhism and the teachings of Richard Baker Roshi. Despite leaving the country for almost 7 months, returning to this sacred place high in the mountains above the San Luis valley I felt as though I had never left. This week’s seminar was much less formal than a sesshin, which is silent and grueling physically. However, we did sit for 3-4 hours a day, in the morning, evening and prior to Roshi Baker’s discussion periods. There were about 22 of us attending, some full-time residents of the monastery, others of us very new to the practice. What I enjoyed most about this week was time spent talking to others about the Dharma teachings of Baker Roshi. During breaks and transitions I would often find myself walking in the woods or sitting quietly in the main hall with another, talking opening of our experience in relation to the Dharma teachings and themes that were being developed and explored throughout the week. To connect soul to soul with another person, without boundaries, ego and fear, even if only for a few moments, is for me, one of the most precious and beautiful aspects of existence. As I rebuild my life in Boulder, my few days in Crestone helped create a new intention in my life; that is directing my life in such a way that it supports my practice. Practice being the craft of Buddhism, learning to relate to an interdependent, momentary existence.Teachers-Winter_ZENDO

It is often difficult to explain the teachings and my experiences of the week due to the nature of them often being very individual and momentary, but I would like to comment on a few tangible things that I am taking away with me.

First, this week we developed and explored a topic called body fullness, or perceptual immediacy. This is essentially an ancient yogic practice of giving order to the mind through the body. The job of our consciousness is to make the world predictable, and to give us a sense of continuity (ego, existence, memory, etc). But consciousness alone can take you into a place of idealism, fantasy and untruth. Consciousness demands order in a world that is not moving towards entropy. Our practice in this Yogacara/Buddhist manner is to embody teachings, to embody truth, to understand the bodily aspects of every state of mind. This is using a concept or intention to help the body, through the mind, to bring order to the body. Eventually a monumental shift can occur, where you are no longer living in self-referential or continuity-based thinking but finding identity in your immediate existence.

Chew on that for a while 🙂 For me, this is in alignment with the direction my practice was taking towards the end of my travels – getting back into the body, or “establishing a mutual body” with the world, exploring my chakras and intricate workings of my physicality through breath, silence and stillness.

Adjacent to this teaching is the effort to identify ourselves in the world as  activities, not entities. We (especially in the West) tend to view ourselves as distinct entities, separate from everything and everyone else, acting upon or being IMG_0759acted against. A very simple example of this is the use of chopsticks or drinking tea from cups with no handles in Buddhist cultures – the chopsticks serve as an extension of the hands and therefore aid in the activity of eating. As for tea cups, most Asians use both hands, holding the tea cup at the chest first and then raising the glass to their mouths to drink. There is no entity drinking tea, there is simply the action (imagine your experience the moment you raise a mug of tea to your mouth). I don’t think I’m doing a great job describing this – but to return to the chopsticks – we see food, we see a table, we see a fork and spoon and we see ourselves. We then tend to act as an entity to move and manipulate these entities in order to get the food into our stomachs. What I’m trying to do is view the entire process as an interdependent, simultaneously inseparable and yet unique experience of eating.

To take the above to a relationship level – if you relate to someone only through a mental process (as an entity), they will feel contained. We all know what this feels like. Can you relate to someone bodily? I’m not talking about only physical touch, but with your entire being (senses, emotions, posture, etc. Can you relate without boundaries and in the particular moment of existence? This is the beginning of love.

I think that is enough for today. I will end with a quote Baker-Roshi gave us that I thought was quite beautiful ( I can’t recall the author):

"I enter the broken world through the paths of love”

Happy New Year everyone.

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